By Jon Jeter
The nomination of the pro-gun, antiabortion Fitzgerald, a millionaire state senator who spent nearly $7 million on television ads, is a blow to the moderate wing of the Republican Party, whose leaders believe that a conservative cannot win a statewide race.
In a Senate election here in 1996, conservative Al Salvi was badly beaten by Democratic nominee Richard J. Durbin. Suspecting that Moseley-Braun was vulnerable, Republican leaders had pinned their hopes for winning their first Senate election in two decades on state Comptroller Loleta Didrickson.
But despite endorsements from Illinois' popular Republican governor, Jim Edgar, and last-minute campaign appearances by 1996 GOP presidential nominee Robert J. Dole and others on her behalf, Didrickson was unable to beat back the challenge from Fitzgerald. The 37-year-old state senator used a barrage of television ads to characterize his rival as a liberal.
"Some in good faith believe the answer is to nominate someone who might water down the distinctions with the Democratic nominee, blur the distinction between the party platforms," Fitzgerald said today.
Throughout the campaign, Moseley-Braun repeated Fitzgerald's depiction of Didrickson as a liberal, preferring to square off in the November general election against a conservative who supports a ban on all abortion and would present voters a sharp contrast to her.
"It's the difference between the mainstream and the extreme," Moseley-Braun said today.
In the weeks leading up to the balloting, Didrickson complained that her wealthy rival was trying to buy the election. "A $10 million romp in the Republican primary destroying another Republican colleague's record of 10 to 15 years of really strong accomplishments isn't what being a Republican is all about," she said.
But with nearly 80 percent of the precincts reporting, Didrickson conceded.
Republicans have not held a Senate seat from Illinois since Charles Percy was defeated in 1984 and Didrickson urged her supporters to rally behind the GOP nominee.
"I think it is extremely important that our party demonstrate that the Republican Party is still intact in Illinois," she said.
The first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, Moseley-Braun has battled allegations that she mishandled campaign funds and that her then-fiance and campaign manager, Kgosie Matthews, sexually harassed female campaign workers. In 1996, she and Matthews visited Nigeria and met with that country's dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha. Republicans viewed her Senate seat as vulnerable to a GOP challenge.
Similar to Republicans' efforts to claim Moseley-Braun's seat in the Senate, Illinois Democrats nominated Rep. Glenn Poshard for governor, a post no Democrat has held in 22 years. A moderate who opposes abortion, Poshard was the most conservative of four Democrats vying for the gubernatorial nomination.
With the endorsement of organized labor and Mike Madigan, the influential speaker of the Illinois House, Poshard easily outdistanced his closest challenger, Roland Burris, a former state attorney general.
He also defeated John Schmidt, a former top official in the Justice Department, and Jim Burns, a former federal prosecutor. He will face Secretary of State George Ryan in the general election.
An African American who has held statewide office for two decades, Burris held a 2-1 lead in gubernatorial polls as recently as a month ago. But his reference to Democratic rivals as "unqualified white boys" and a poorly financed campaign helped cause that lead to evaporate. Burris's campaign could not afford to buy a single television ad.
Burris was one of three African Americans vying for the Democratic nomination to top statewide elected posts. Moseley-Braun was unopposed and Jesse White was nominated to be secretary of state.
The potential of three blacks leading the Democratic ticket in the general election would have been a first in Illinois politics, and perhaps nationally, political analysts said.
Some Democratic Party officials were concerned that a ticket dominated by African Americans would have led some white Democrats to identify the party with purely minority interests and influence them to vote Republican in the general election.
Burris was not endorsed by any of the state's highest-ranking Democratic officials, angering some blacks.
Illinois elections officials said that less than a third of the state's voters turned out for the primary. Analysts attributed the poor turnout to a non-presidential year, candidates with little charisma, bad weather and the public's contentment with a robust economy.
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